A soulless 21-year-old walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last weekend and opened fire, killing 22 people.
“I’m probably going to die today,” Patrick Crusius had written in a manifesto expressing racial animosity toward Hispanics, among many other things, that he posted shortly before he started shooting.
He didn’t die. Indeed, Crusius, identifying himself as the shooter, turned himself in to a police officer at the scene. Once in police custody, he was described as in “a state of shock and confusion.”
Hours later and many states away, another young man — 24-year-old Connor Betts — walked into a Dayton, Ohio, bar and opened fire. He was killed by police officers, but not before he fatally shot nine people, including a sister who accompanied him on a tour of the city’s bar scene.
Described as a person fascinated with guns, Betts was suspended from high school for compiling lists of acquaintances he wanted to either rape or kill. He described himself as a “metalhead/leftist.”
“I’m going to hell, and I’m not coming back,” he wrote.
Who are these sorry people who appear out of nowhere and kill in large numbers?
What’s their motivation? Most important, what are the personal characteristics that drive them to lash out?
Obviously, they are not well-adjusted. But are they mentally ill? Or cool-headed sociopaths who act out of venal, but comprehensible, motives?
Analysts at the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit conducted a massive study of 63 shooting incidents between 2000 and 2013 looking for common factors in the hope that “there is something that can be done.”
“In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence,” the report states. “... By articulating the concrete, observable pre-attack behaviors of the many active shooters, the FBI hopes to make these warning signs more visible and easily identifiable.”
The study concluded that potential shooters cannot be identified “based on demographics alone” and that just “25 percent of active shooters in this study” had been diagnosed with a mental illness.
But mental health diagnosis statistics are misleading because the active shooters “were typically experiencing multiple stressors” that affected their emotional stability,” each displayed “four to five concerning behaviors that were observable to others around the shooter,” and their “most common grievances” were related to “an adverse interpersonal or employment action against” them.
One obvious problem the FBI identified was the reaction of witnesses to “concerning behaviors” — displays of aggression, anger and mental issues and making threats.
“ ... The most common response was to communicate directly to the active shooter (49 percent) or do nothing (54 percent),” the FBI report states.
Crusius didn’t have much going for him or display any desire to improve himself.
“I’m not really motivated to do anything more than what’s necessary to get by. Working in general sucks,” he wrote on a LinkedIn page.
He lived until recently with his grandparents, claimed he spent “eight hours every day on the computer” and didn’t “participate in extracurricular activities b/c of a lack of freedom.”
Betts attended a community college.
Calling stress a “well-established correlate of criminal behavior,” the FBI identified a number of issues that contribute to that problem, the largest of which (62 percent) is mental health. But the list also includes financial strain, sexual frustration, work or family issues and abuse of drugs and alcohol.
The FBI noted that everyone experiences stress, while few are mass shooters. So it focused on stressors that “were sufficiently significant to have been memorialized, shared or otherwise noted in some way.”
Betts’ background is littered with alarming behavior. It remains to be seen what investigators learn about Crusius, although he appeared to have few friends or social outlets.
The FBI said active shooters are not “completely isolated and had at least some social connection to another person.
When interviewed, associates of active shooters cited multiple factors that raised “more than minimal” unease. The most common included the shooter’s mental health, difficult interpersonal relationships, like with a work supervisor, threats to harm others and witnessing the poor quality of a shooter’s thinking or communication.
These stressors “provide insight in the active shooter’s inner turmoil,” the report states.
Most active shooters respond to what’s called a “primary grievance,” a good example being the employee at the Henry Platt Co. in Aurora who in February killed five people and was himself killed by police. He pulled out a gun and started firing after being informed of his dismissal.
“More than a typical feeling of resentment or passing anger, a grievance often results in a grossly distorted preoccupation with a sense of injustice, like an injury that fails to heal. These thoughts can saturate a person’s thinking and foster a pervasive sense of imbalance between self-image and the (real or perceived) humiliation,” the report states.
The FBI made this timely study to “promote awareness among potential bystanders” and to assist “threat assessment” considerations by trained professionals.
It promised further research of the active shooter by studying surviving perpetrators, like Crusius, those who planned a mass shooting but were stopped and those who were suspected “but had no intent to commit an act of targeted violence.”
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.